Narth’s Musings: Perfume’s Power

I’m sure we’ve all talked about this before, but it’s been on my mind of late: negative scent associations that mean a perfume will never work for us. Sometimes it’s obvious, a person we found difficult drenched themselves in a scent, and now we don’t care for it. But often it’s a more subtle and layered experience.

The sight of the black Lanvin Arpege bottle with its gold embossed mother and child will always make me feel a combination of guilt, sadness and anxiety. My mother wore Arpege, and this bottle has an almost claustrophobic effect on me. I prefer my perfume to be, at its very worst, dreadfully dull. I do not like it when perfume triggers a horrible flashback of feelings, a sudden reminder that yes, you have these feelings, and here they are in a big feeling vomit, enjoy! Many years ago, I bought a bottle of Lanvin Arpege after convincing myself I would redeem it, and it would be only about good associations. Sadly, the mother and child motif was too much, and when I finally swapped it away, I was relieved. I think if you had a great relationship with your mom, and she wore this scent the bottle would be the sweetest thing! Maybe you can’t bottle maternal love, but for myself personally Lanvin Arpege mockingly bottles the absence of it. I do not have a rational relationship with this perfume.

Another Odor Horribilis for me is anything with a whiff of campfire. I like my smoke scents to smell like an ashtray left rotting under the couch in a sharehouse. The moment we trek out into the woods with a bonfire burning I shut down hard. Having lived through several bushfires and known beautiful folk who didn’t make it, I absolutely cannot abide this smell, this burning, burning smell. It will never be a scent of pleasure again. I do remember a time in my childhood when it was one of those “best smells ever” and all about camping, singing and eating too much sugar… But that’s another Narth. There is a Naomi Goodsir fragrance I’ve never tried because of the bonfire note. As the SA was enthusiastically listing the notes, I said “NO” rather too firmly and then sheepishly mentioned bushfires. She immediately understood, and we moved on to something happily floral.

Perfume is powerful stuff. I’ve had several long perfume breaks where I stopped thinking about it at all, but negative associations would still throw themselves at me against my will. Smell, the sense most people value the least, has been busy building a personal history with us all our lives.

I’d love to hear your own associations, if you want to share, of scents you would rather not revisit.

Bushfire Smoke AZ

Photo by me, during our long summer of bushfire smoke. This was reality for many weeks and the smell filled the house.

17 thoughts on “Narth’s Musings: Perfume’s Power

  1. Oh, Narth, I do feel for you. Not all mothers are maternal and yet society forces happy images of loving mother and child on us and we feel guilty for not experiencing the idealised relationship. Smell is such a powerful sense and just a few molecules floating into our noses and reaching our brains can catapult us back in time immediately, and we find ourselves overwhelmed by all emotions we felt at the very time we first smelled a certain odour. It’s therefore not surprising you couldn’t accept the Arpege, but touching that you tried to.

    Mostly my smell memories are pleasant, like that of lavender – I flashback many years to the day we moved into our house and the removal men kept brushing against the huge shrub by the door. But I have a few unpleasant ones, usually any perfume that triggered a migraine and which was forever banned afterwards; the worst though has to be the smell of White Linen, which I was wearing on the day my mother died, and the smell of this stabs me in the stomach now.

    I am so sorry for the loss of your friends. My sister lives in Oz, and the smell of bushfires has too often been an inescapable backdrop to their lives over the last year – I can just imagine how nauseating that smell must be for you.

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    • Hi Jillie, you make a good point, not all mothers have maternal instincts, dealing with the fallout and societal expectations is quite painful.
      I learned years ago never to mention our relationship, explaining it to people who don’t understand is very painful and reopens wounds.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jillie, I think I disagree with your “society forces happy images of loving mother” statements – maybe not with the content itself but with a connotation. I think that projecting an ideal (not even idealized, mind you) image of loving mother/child relationship is better and more useful for society in general than any alternative: people should distinguish good and bad, otherwise how would they strive to be good?
      From the child’s side, there is nothing to feel guilty about if relationships were not as they were supposed to be in the early years, and when the sides turn, a grownup child can decide the extent of adult relations with a “not ideal” parent. As to a parent, especially a mother, in my opinion, maternal instincts or not, setting aside marginal cases, when a woman decides to bring a child to this world – for any reason, understanding her inability to be a loving mother or not, she signs a moral contract to behave as a loving mother, regardless of her feelings. And if she breaks that contract, in general, she should feel guilty for not meeting the expected “happy image of loving mother.”
      Having said that, there are people who should not be parents – both for their own and a child’s sake. But, again setting aside marginal cases, aren’t we better off being born to not ideal parents than not being born at all? :)

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      • I do agree with you, Undina! Society probably wouldn’t exist as we know it if it were not for the concept of mothers, home, protection and so on. That is a good thing. And you are so right that some people should not have children if they do not want to then nurture and care for them, giving them the happiest start to life possible. That is how I also feel about having a pet!

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        • I think it’s not so much that society forces it as that if it’s a wound we experience it as rubbing that wound raw. Many people have that experience about all kinds of happy society things, children, valentines day, often just the holidays will do it. It feels like it’s everywhere assaulting you if you’re in a sensitive place.

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    • Oh I’m so sorry about your mother Jillie. I guess in some ways a perfume association with emotional pain is one of the easier things to put aside and never wear, or hopefully smell, again. Thanks for sharing about White Linen, I’m sure it isn’t an easy thing to talk about.

      As to the smoke it mainly gives me shooting anxiety. Constant news stalking and emergency app loading and.. well it all comes back.

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  2. Hi Narth,
    I understand. Not all mothers are maternal and our relationship was not ideal. I learned years ago not to mention it to others – it was too painful and they never understood.
    My mom wore Magie by Lancome and Estee by EL, although pretty, they aren’t my cup of tea, and, they come with too many painful reminders.
    That picture reminds me of Northern CA. We had an awful fire season, and seeing people lose everything, and ensuing destruction to farms, vineyards, and wildlife, was heart breaking.

    I am so sorry for the loss of your friends, may their memory be a blessing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes I rarely talk about it, people are so often “helpful” and blessedly ignorant. I’m happy for them that they don’t really get it.

      Yes Northern CA has had so much pain over the years with the fires, seemingly every summer, it’s a very terrible thing. How does anyone have the heart to rebuild in the same place I wonder. I often fantasize about living somewhere with this is never a consideration.

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      • A dear friend of mine lost her Boulder Creek dream house, built in1908, one month after she purchased it. She and her kids were devastated. But she is determined to rebuild. She is built with a strength that is formidable. Well, and she has four kids, so there’s that! :)

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  3. Narth – Like smokeytoes, I understand. My mother was psychologically cruel and often easily crossed the line into evil. Sadly that’s no exaggeration. The perfume is the original Nina Ricci L’Air Du Temps. She only ever had 2 bottles and they were gifted her. I have never been able to sniff that one again.
    The good thing is that there are perfumes that remind me of some incredible people, happy times, beautiful places, funny stories, or just make me feel good. That’s where I go with fragrance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I rarely think about it, but I do sadly notice the Arpege bottle every time I see it in a chemist window. I’d like to just never notice this again but I will say it’s a more muted association than in the past. And yes I have so many wonderful fragrances I associate with other people, because they were gifts or because I gifted them and they wore them with love :)

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  4. Luckily for me, so far I do not have any bad perfume associations, but knowing how strong the scent-memory connection might be, I’m trying hard to avoid creating any bad associations with my favorite perfumes. When we had fires recently, I skipped several days of wearing perfume and later was very choosy. But I can completely understand your issues with smoky perfumes: it will be a while before I choose to wear one of those.

    Not having great relations with parents as a child is bad, and it hurts. But now, being an adult, shield yourself from poisonous contacts or memories: it’s your life now, and now you have a chance to be a great mom, if you choose to, or a wonderful aunt, or a fabulous older friend, or… you get the picture. You do not have to be a good daughter – unless you know yourself that you should. But not because you’re expected to.

    Motherhood can be heroic, but it’s not necessarily is, so we don’t have to feel obligated to anyone just for the fact of being born. I think that I f we felt loved or at least safe and taken care of, we “owe” to those people who provided that love and security. But if we didn’t get as a child what we think we should have, there should be no guilt for how we feel or act now: people give birth to children not for those children but for themselves. So, while we can be thankful for that (as for the “opportunity” to be vs. not to be :) ), we do not have to. And if anything causes anxiety – be that perfume, picture on a bottle or, let’s say, a song on the radio, scrub it off, throw it away, or turn it off. Life is too fragile and short to feel bad about perfumes. But it’s easy for me to say it: I don’t think I’ve ever smelled Arpege, and I never liked that bottle ;)

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    • I never liked that Arpege bottle either. It still gives me the creeps. To me the ‘mother’ figure looks like a witch. I really thought that female figure was a witch trying to hurt the child. Maybe I was just projecting from my own life as the child of two narcissists. Thankfully, I realized at a very young age that I could not trust my parents and found ways to escape my unpleasant reality. I’ve had lots of therapy as an adult so I’m good now.

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  5. May I warn you off The Library of Fragrance’s ‘Bonfire’ in that case…

    Narcisse Noire was a vintage-style scent I encountered way too early in my perfume hobby. It was unbelievably oppressive and headache-inducing. I have a lot of bad perfume associations now you bring it up, though happily not with my mother.

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    • PS Your post has just reminded me that as a child I had a phobia of burnt out buildings and could not bear to go near them. There were several fire incidents involving family or friends: a caravan, a barn, a gasometer, and a garage, which my mother accidentally set on fire and turned into a car port(!). Years later, I had to ride a moped through forest fires in Corsica, which was pretty hairy. I feel for you having those sad memories of bush fires and their casualties. Am not surprised you don’t like that style of scent. :(

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  6. I have a lot of negative associations with fires, burning wood, smoldering fires, smoke, and ashes, too. I won’t go into all my traumas relating to fire smells, but these scents are bad triggers for me as well. While I love Andy Tauer, his “Lone Star” just about made me scream when I tried it. I’m sticking with his other beautiful NON-smoky fragrances.

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